Since 1981, the county government has administered Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) to organizations in Milwaukee County to serve the needs of low-to-moderate income populations. Authorized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), CDBG funds are given separately to municipal and county governments. To qualify for CDBG funding, local governments must meet HUD's regulations.
The County Board, however, has been a bit relaxed when observing HUD's regulations. HUD conducted a review of projects in 2011 and found that the County Board has been disbursing CDBG funds to nonprofit organizations deemed ineligible. El Conquistador asked Hector Colon, the new Director of the County's Health and Human Services (DHHS), if the County is on the hook for reimbursing HUD for ineligible projects. Colon said it's currently under review, but the County could be on the hook for $200,000 or more.
Colon was brought into county government last year by County Executive Chris Abele to reform the way the Department of Health and Human Services does its business. In an attempt to bring greater fiscal efficiency, accountability, and transparency to the CDBG process, Colon is now implementing a comprehensive reform scorecard. Part of the reform includes a new review panel of non-management CDBG professionals consisting of the DHHS housing division and the city of Milwaukee and West Allis to make recommendations to the County Board on the eligibility of CDBG applicants.
At a hearing before the County Board's Economic and Community Development Committee, Colon told Board Supervisors that in 2004 and in 2011, the Village of River Hills proposed to sell their CDBG allocation to another municipality. This proposal raised red flags. HUD asked DHHS to provide documentation to show proof that all 2011 projects met HUD requirements. An investigation launched by HUD found that the County Board was approving grants to organizations that didn't work in approved jurisdictions and didn't serve poor-to-moderate communities.
During a recent hearing, County Supervisor Peggy West openly questioned Colon's recommendations saying she thought there was "a little bit of presumption" going into projects deemed ineligible and that their "willy-nilly" considerations could make worthy organizations ineligible for funding.
According to Colon, however, his scoring system is anything but willy-nilly. He consulted with HUD to devise an objective scorecard. HUD officials told Colon that Dane County's CDBG guidelines best reflected their own regulations. Using the Dane County model as a template, he devised a seven-pronged scoring system that assigned points to relevant areas. This point-based system was meant to do away with the decisions of the past made behind closed doors using subjective evaluation standards unknown to the public.
But West was disappointed. According to Colon's scoring, Journey House - a nonprofit that works to increase education and reduce crime in communities - was ineligible for CDBG funding. Against Colon's advice, West voted to amend the panel's recommendation so Journey House could receive $15,000 in federal funding.
Colon told El Conquistador, "Staff advised Supervisor West that it was the department's opinion that the Journey House project would not be eligible because a majority of the participants served would be from the City of Milwaukee, which is outside our jurisdiction. Staff also made Supervisor West aware that Journey House would fit into the Public Service category; therefore, could not be interchanged with a non-public service project like Zablocki Park."
When we asked West why she made the amendment after Colon had advised against it, she said, "Many agencies who were funded in past years completed their applications with the same information they provided in the past, although they do provide County-wide service. Journey House is one of the agencies that services people County-wide, therefore they are qualified for CDBG funding. The work they do is important, so I was happy to offer the amendment."
The problem, however, is that West's amendment went against a grading system approved by HUD and conducted by a panel of CDBG experts. West stated that Journey House provides services to people County-wide, but the scorecard showed that most of their services were in Milwaukee, which was an unapproved jurisdiction.
It stands to reason then that if Journey House can't receive County CDBG funding because most of their work is done in Milwaukee, Journey House should apply for CDBG funding through the city. West should know this and should not have made the amendment. The Administration has the last say and can withhold federal funding if they deem the project ineligible. The amendment was superfluous.
Colon told El Conquistador that these CDBG reforms are the first of its kind in Milwaukee County. They've taken steps to ensure taxpayer money is well spent, that federal guidelines are followed, and money follows the community's need. Colon said, "We've taken an aggressive approach to clean up and reform the past process, and we believe the reforms will bring transparency and accountability that has been long needed."
Hector Colon's work in the County should be commended. Grant disbursements should be based on an objective criteria by those who are experienced in the CDBG process. County Executive Chris Abele said it best, Colon's reforms "will make the CDBG process more transparent and accountable to taxpayers." Our hat is off to Colon for fixing a broken process and establishing a better working relationship with HUD.